Thursday, January 29, 2009

Global Crisis and Cuban Values

There was one region that saw the bankruptcy of neoliberalism - and now the rest of the world is having to catch up

by Seumas Milne

On 9 October 1967, Che Guevara faced a shaking sergeant Mario Teran, ordered to murder him by the Bolivian president and CIA, and declared: "Shoot, coward, you're only going to kill a man." The climax of Stephen Soderbergh's two-part epic, Che, in real life this final act of heroic defiance marked the defeat of multiple attempts to spread the Cuban revolution to the rest of Latin America.

But 40 years later, the long-retired executioner, now a reviled old man, had his sight restored by Cuban doctors, an operation paid for by revolutionary Venezuela in the radicalised (?) Bolivia of Evo Morales. Teran was treated as part of a programme which has seen 1.4 million free eye operations carried out by Cuban doctors in 33 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. It is an emblem both of the humanity of Fidel Castro and Guevara's legacy, but also of the transformation of Latin America which has made such extraordinary co-operation possible.

The 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution this month has already been the occasion for a regurgitation of western media tropes about pickled totalitarian misery, while next week's 10th anniversary of Hugo Chávez's presidency in Venezuela will undoubtedly trigger a parallel outburst of hostility, ridicule and unfounded accusations of dictatorship. The fact that Chávez, still commanding close to 60% popular support, is again trying to convince the Venezuelan people to overturn the US-style two-term limit on his job will only intensify such charges, even though the change would merely bring the country into line with the rules in France and Britain.

But it is a response which also utterly fails to grasp the significance of the wave of progressive change that has swept away the old elites and brought a string of radical socialist and social-democratic governments to power across the continent, from Ecuador to Brazil, Paraguay to Argentina: challenging US domination and neoliberal orthodoxy, breaking down social and racial inequality, building regional integration and taking back strategic resources from corporate control.

That is the process which this week saw Bolivians vote, in the land where Guevara was hunted down, to adopt a sweeping new constitution empowering the country's long-suppressed indigenous majority and entrenching land reform and public control of natural resources - after months of violent resistance sponsored by the traditional white ruling class. It's also seen Cuba finally brought into the heart of regional structures from which Washington has strained every nerve to exclude it.

The seeds of this Latin American rebirth were sown half a century ago in Cuba. But it is also more directly rooted in the region's disastrous experience of neoliberalism, first implemented by the bloody Pinochet regime in the 1970s - before being adopted with enthusiasm by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and duly enforced across the world.

The wave of privatisation, deregulation and mass pauperisation it unleashed in Latin America first led to mass unrest in Venezuela in 1989, savagely repressed in the Caracazo massacre of more than 1,000 barrio dwellers and protesters. The impact of the 1998 financial crisis unleashed a far wider rejection of the new market order, the politics of which are still being played out across the continent. And the international significance of this first revolt against neoliberalism on the periphery of the US empire now could not be clearer, as the global meltdown has rapidly discredited the free-market model first rejected in South America.

Hopes are naturally high that Barack Obama will recognise the powerful national, social and ethnic roots of Latin America's reawakening - the election of an Aymara president was as unthinkable in Bolivia as an African American president - and start to build a new relationship of mutual respect. The signs so far are mixed. The new US president has made some positive noises about Cuba, promising to lift the Bush administration's travel and remittances ban for US citizens - though not to end the stifling 47-year-old trade embargo.

But on Venezuela it seemed to be business as usual earlier this month, when Obama insisted that the Venezuelan president had been a "force that has interrupted progress" and claimed Venezuela was "supporting terrorist activities" in Colombia, apparently based on spurious computer disc evidence produced by the Colombian military.

If this is intended as political cover for an opening to Cuba then perhaps it shouldn't be taken too seriously. But if it is an attempt to isolate Venezuela and divide and rule in America's backyard, it's unlikely to work. Venezuela is a powerful regional player and while Chávez may have lost five out of 22 states in November's regional elections on the back of discontent over crime and corruption, his supporters still won 54% of the popular vote to the opposition's 42%.

That is based on a decade of unprecedented mobilisation of oil revenues to achieve impressive social gains, including the near halving of poverty rates, the elimination of illiteracy and a massive expansion of free health and education. The same and more is true of Cuba, famous for first world health and education standards - with better infant mortality rates than the US - in an economically blockaded developing country.

Less well known is the country's success in diversifying its economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not just into tourism and biotechnology, but the export of medical services and affordable vaccines to the poorest parts of the world. Anyone who seriously cares about social justice cannot but recognise the scale of these achievements - just as the greatest contribution those genuinely concerned about lack of freedom and democracy in Cuba can make is to help get the US off the Cubans' backs.

None of that means the global crisis now engulfing Latin America isn't potentially a threat to all its radical governments, with falling commodity prices cutting revenues and credit markets drying up. Revolutions can't stand still, and the deflation of the oil cushion that allowed Chávez to leave the interests of the traditional Venezuelan ruling elite untouched means pressure for more radical solutions is likely to grow. Meanwhile, the common sense about the bankruptcy of neoliberalism first recognised in Latin America has now gone global. Whether it generates the same kind of radicalism elsewhere remains to be seen.

The Elite in the Mountain

The knives are out for Davos Man. But the alternative is much more alarming

by Timothy Garton Ash

The biggest danger is not a surfeit of the globalism embodied by this forum, but the strengthening of economic nationalism

Davos Man
, "the most highly evolved mammal on the planet", should say sorry for the economic mess he's got us into, according to a trenchant little piece in the Times by the Conservative MP and journalist, Michael Gove. Scanning the list of participants in this year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, I notice the name of the Conservative party leader, David Cameron. If memory serves, Cameron was a Davos Man last year too. So clearly Gove is calling on his party leader to say sorry.

There is something both predictable and ridiculous about the blame game being played, with politicians blaming bankers, bankers blaming regulators, regulators blaming politicians, and so on. If, as Barack Obama famously remarked to Joe the Plumber, we need to spread the wealth around a bit more, we also need to spread the blame around a bit more - and more discriminatingly.

Those of us who are not financial experts are only beginning to understand what went wrong in what George Soros has described as a super-boom followed by a super-bust. (If you want a crash course - the term is doubly apt - I recommend a special report on finance in the latest Economist and a recent lecture by the head of Britain's Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner, available on the FSA website.) On the evidence we have so far, the following could plausibly be asked to interrogate themselves on their share of the responsibility. With the exception of the first and last categories, the words "some of the" should be inserted before each heading. My list is, of course, merely indicative.

Crooks. Bernie Madoff was (it appears, subject to the finding of the courts) a crook, a fraudster and a confidence trickster. His like will always be with us. The relevant question is how he was able to get away with it for so long and on such a scale.

Bankers. Some highly respected and law-abiding bankers took huge gambles and made horrible miscalculations at our expense, themselves walking off with multimillion bonuses while leaving shareholders and taxpayers to pick up the tab. Others did not.

Regulators. There's a lot of failure to go around in this category. "Is that a typo?" one official at the US Securities and Exchange Commission was said to have asked, when faced with the $50bn estimate for Madoff's losses. "Isn't that number meant to be $50m?"

Politicians. It's all very well for politicians to rail against "Wall Street" and the "banksters", but this happened on George Bush's and Gordon Brown's watch. "The cheerleaders of finance," writes the Economist's Edward Carr in his report, "were unwilling to admit that houses were too expensive and risk too cheap." Yes, but so were the cheerleaders of British and American politics.

Economists. Here's a guild from which we might usefully hear a little more self-criticism - especially from the quantitative economists whose mathematical models helped to lead investment bankers astray. In what sense can economics still claim to be a science if its predictive capacity is so low? Imagine Newtonian physics when apples start going upwards.

Journalists. Yes, a few warned, as did a few exceptional economists like Nouriel Roubini; but it's only now that your average reader of the business pages is in a position to understand how risky his or her investments were. Did business journalism fail us?

We, the people. Some of us, anyway: piling up household debt, especially in Britain and America, on the back of inflated house prices that gave the illusion of security; not asking sufficiently probing questions about where our pension funds were invested.

The system. Blanket charges against some denatured, depersonalised "system" usually betray incoherence wrapped in indignation. But there is a sense here of a global financial system that had become so large, complex and untransparent that it was beyond the capacity of even the largest actor in the markets to understand, let alone control. And one in which apparently rational decisions by most individual participants produced a result collectively damaging for all.

The first conclusion that I draw is about knowledge and transparency. What many of these categories have in common is that those involved, whether bankers, regulators, politicians, journalists or ordinary pension fund-holders, did not see and understand enough about what was really going on. There were too many black boxes and unopened Russian dolls - such as those repeatedly repackaged "collateralised debt obligations". Even Soros, the legendary master investor, is said to have been wary of derivatives because he didn't "really understand how they work". Now you may say: "Well, if Soros couldn't understand, how on earth do you expect me to?" But you can also turn that round the other way and say: "Follow the Soros rule - don't invest in anything you don't understand." If enough individual and institutional investors made that paradigm shift, this would have the beauty of using market mechanisms to discipline markets. Offer more transparency or you don't get my money. This is not a substitute for better regulation by national governments and international institutions, but would be a formidable complement to it.

My second conclusion brings us back to Davos Man, a term of art coined by the late Samuel Huntington to describe a member of a new global elite, liberated from national loyalties and contemptuous of national boundaries - a kind of ruthless cosmopolitan. Davos Man was always what social scientists call an "ideal type". In practice, Davos is a meeting place of diverse business, political and media elites. Many of the multinational companies, banks and media concerns represented here do have global business plans and strategies, yet even they often remain rooted in a national business or media culture. CNN is global but also very American; BBC World is global but also quite British, Nestlé is global and thoroughly Swiss.

As for the political leaders who come to Davos, most of them are still firmly based in national politics. Up here, on the magic mountain, they present their national views and interests to an international audience in the most cosmopolitan terms - as the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and the Russian premier Vladimir Putin did yesterday. But they always remain acutely conscious of how their words will play through national media to national publics back home.

The biggest danger to the world's economic system is not a surfeit of Davos-type internationalism; it's the strengthening of economic nationalism. Davos has always been a small part of a larger effort not to supplant international competition but to place it within a stronger framework of international co-operation.

Now we are at a crossroads. One road leads back to economic nationalism, protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies. Another leads forward to more international co-operation, including more regulation and transparency. Without a conscious effort, the dynamics of both democratic and undemocratic politics, which remain national, will lead us down the former road. Inside Davos Man, there is his predecessor and possible successor always struggling to get out. If you don't like what you've seen of Davos Man, wait till you see Nationalist Man get to work.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Selma The Sheep

Last week I got the best present I could ever receive, from my dearest friend who lives in the future and upside down! It´s a little book about the secret of happiness, this key thing that anyone and everyone is looking for the entire history of humankind...

"Happiness? Let me tell you the story of Selma..." and so begins this wonderful little book titled Selma, by Jutta Bauer. Selma is a contented mama sheep who spends her days eating grass, playing with her children, exercising in the afternoon, chatting with her neighbor in the evening and then falls fast asleep. When asked what she would do if she had more time or more money she responds with her perfect day... she'd eat some grass, play with her children, exercise in the afternoon, chat with her neighbor in the evening, and then fall fast asleep.

John Updike (RIP)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Wed Picture

Lenin disguised as "Viln", wearing a wig and with his beard shaved off. Finland, August 11, 1917.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Posturing and laughter as victims rot

Mahmoud Abbas stepped further into humiliation by saying the only option for Arabs is to make peace with Israel

by Robert Fisk

The front page of the Beirut daily As-Safir said it all yesterday. Across the top was a terrible photograph of the bloated body of a Palestinian man newly discovered in the ruins of his home while two male members of his family shrieked and roared their grief. Below, at half the size, was a photograph from Israel of Western leaders joking with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister. Olmert was roaring with laughter. Silvio Berlusconi, arms on the back of Olmert's shoulders, was also joshing and roaring – with laughter, not grief – and on Olmert's right was Nicolas Sarkozy of France wearing his stupidest of smiles. Only Chancellor Merkel appeared to understand the moral collapse. No smiles from Germany.

Europe laughs while Palestinians mourn their dead. No wonder that in the streets of Beirut, shops were doing a flourishing trade in Palestinian scarves and flags. Even some of Palestine's most serious enemies in Lebanon wore the Palestinian keffiyeh in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Over and over again, Al-Jazeera television strapped headlines on to their news reports of Palestinians carrying the decomposing corpses of their dead: "More than 1,300 dead in Gaza, 400 of them women and children – Israeli dead in the war 13, three of them civilians." That, too, said it all.

All day, the Arabs also had to endure watching their own leaders primping and posing in front of the cameras at the Arab summit in Kuwait, where the kings and presidents who claim to rule them also smiled and shook hands and tried to pretend that they were unified behind a Palestinian people who have been sorely betrayed. Even Mahmoud Abbas was there, the powerless, impotent leader of "Palestine" – where is that precisely, one had to ask? – trying to suck some importance from the coat-tails and robes of his betters.

Slipping and sliding on the corpses of Gaza, these assembled supreme beings should perhaps be pitied. What else could they do? Saudi King Abdullah announced £750,000 to rebuild Gaza; but how many times have the Arabs and the Europeans been throwing money at Gaza only to see it torn to shreds by incoming shell-fire?

It has to be said that the two cowled Hamas gunmen who announced that they had won a "victory" in the ruins of Gaza were only fractionally less hypocritical. Still they had not understood that they were not the Hizbollah of Lebanon. Gaza was no longer Beirut. Now, it seemed, Gaza was Stalingrad. But whose uniforms did Hamas think they were wearing: German or Soviet?

"Israel has to understand," the good king said – as if the Israelis were listening – "that the choice between war and peace will not always stay open and that the Arab initiative (for Arab recognition in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders of Israel) that is on the table today will not stay on the table." He knew that "an eye for an eye ... did not say an eye for the eyes of a whole city". But how many times – how many bodies have to be pulled from the ruins – before the Saudis realise that time has run out?

The Israelis briskly dismissed land for peace in 2002 but yesterday they suddenly showed their interest again. "We continue to be willing to negotiate with all our neighbours on the basis of that initiative," the Israeli government spokesmen said – as if his own country's original rejection had never been thrown at the Arabs.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, of course, dismissed the whole initiative in Qatar last week as dead, insisting that Israel be declared a "terrorist entity". But Mahmoud Abbas stepped further into humiliation yesterday by announcing that the "only option" for Arabs was to make peace with Israel. It was Arab "shortcomings" that led to the failure of the 2002 Arab initiative. Not Israel's rejection, mark you. No, it was all the fault of the Arabs. And this from the leader of "Palestine".

No wonder America's man in Egypt – a certain Hosni Mubarak – repeated the tired old slogan that "peace in the Middle East is an imperative that cannot be delayed". And then the Emir of Kuwait invited Bashar and Hosni and King Abdullah of Jordan and the other King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to have lunch together – the menu was not disclosed – to end their feuding.

Al-Jazeera showed the ever-more putrid bodies being tugged from beneath cross-beams and crushed concrete as these mighty potentates debated their little disputes. There was really no adequate comment for this charade.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Said Siam (RIP)

The Hamas interior minister Said Siam, who was assassinated, aged 51, when Israeli warplanes attacked his brother's home in Gaza City, was the most senior Hamas leader killed so far in the invasion of Gaza. He was regarded as number three behind the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the party's political head in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar.

Siam joined the Gaza Hamas collective leadership in 2004 after Israeli forces killed his mentor, the then Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz al Rantissi. He contested Palestine's 2006 legislative council elections, which were won by Hamas, polling the highest number of votes cast for any candidate.

Duly elected one of eight MPs for Gaza City, he was appointed interior minister and created the executive forces, a cohort of gunmen ostensibly meant to act as auxiliary police. They answered directly to Siam and became a counterweight to the official security force, loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. "We will beat with an iron fist all groups who are acting illegally," warned Siam. Their foes in the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa brigade called them "criminals". Drawn mainly from Hamas militias, their numbers rose from 3,000 to 5,800 by January 2007, and possibly 12,000 today.

Siam helped mastermind the defeat of pro-Fatah units in June 2007 after a four-day uprising that killed at least 116. He had previously promised, just 14 months earlier, that "there will be no armed clash. We'll settle quarrels through dialogue." The "coup", as described by Fatah loyalists, effectively torpedoed the unity government and split the Abbas-controlled regime on the West Bank from the Hamas regime in Gaza.

In November 1995 Siam had told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz: "I don't hate [Israelis] for being Jewish but because of what they have done to us. If the reason for hate will not exist, [and] you recognise the injustice we suffered ... everything is possible."

A decade later, though, he had solidified into a determined militant. In April 2006 he praised a suicide attack in Tel Aviv - the first after months of truce between the Islamists and Israel - as a justifiable strike against the economic blockade. Interviewed by Italy's La Repubblica at the time, he proclaimed: "Our people have never had a heavenly life. To us, distress is not something new. They ask us to defend their dignity and their rights, and food will come after."

Siam preferred polo necks and a neatly trimmed beard over the Arab robes favoured by his colleagues. Later a favoured interlocutor with Iran and Egypt, he was born in Shati refugee camp, Gaza, to a family who hailed from Al-Jura, a now destroyed village west of the Israeli city of Ashkelon. All its Palestinian residents fled when confronted by the Israeli Givati brigade, which conquered the locale in November 1948. Other figures from Al-Jura include the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder and first leader of Hamas, and the parents of Haniyeh.

At first Siam worked as a maths and science teacher at UN-run schools. An early member of Hamas, he headed their teachers union and during the first intifada (1987-1992), he led a unit that killed Palestinians suspected of informing for Israel. In 1992 he was one of 415 Hamas affiliates whom Israel deported to southern Lebanon. On returning to Gaza, he was often arrested by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, instituted in 1994. That year he exhorted worshippers at Gaza's Palestine mosque to put aside differences and unite against Israel.

After Hamas won the 2006 elections, some credited Siam with cracking down on rampant clan violence. But he quelled opponents ruthlessly, and human rights agencies highlighted his ministry's use of torture. Last August, Siam, Zahar and their allies ousted more moderate Haniyeh supporters in internal Hamas elections, suggesting a renaissance for the militants.

Also killed in Thursday's attack was Siam's brother Iyad, a controller of Hamas rocket units, one of Siam's sons, and Salah Abu Sharah, director of Hamas internal security in Gaza. Palestinian sources reported that 20 others were injured. Siam is survived by his wife, two daughters and three sons.

• Said Mohammed Siam, politician, born 1957; died 15 January 2009

by Lawrence Joffe

Sir John Mortimer (RIP)

One of the best things about the last few years is that I ended up as a country neighbour to John Mortimer. His house was a short walk away in the woods and every time I went there I knew that there would be talk, drink, gossip, mockery of our great leaders, almost certainly a heavy argument and then rolling back home knowing that you'd been in company as good as it gets. John and Penny were irresistible - even their squabbles made you laugh.

I've known him for years. I made a film about him and never had a dud moment with him. It wasn't only the jokes and the stories and the roguish malice but the unshakeable core of the man. The pillars of his mind were in the liberties of England, which had to be defended at all costs and extended wherever possible. And in literature. He was soaked in Shakespeare, steeped in Dickens, an everyman library in the great writers and the great laws of this country.

It was bold of him to take on the Oz trial in 1971. Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, among other young radical hippies, had been accused of obscenity. The law was outraged. John was equally outraged that they had been censored. It was typical of him to defend the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, while at the same time insisting that he thought it was not a good novel.

He was dancing in the streets when Labour was elected in 1997, but at the throats of the Labour government when in his opinion they over-extended the grip of the state on what he thought of as the historic and inalienable rights of the citizens of this country.

He never hid his love of the pleasures of life, and as for champagne - I believe the first glass went down about 6am after an hour's writing, and consumption continued until bedtime.

To the accusation that he was a champagne socialist he always replied that his ambition was to enrol everyone in that club.

He created a great Dickensian character in Rumpole - it's given to few writers to invent such a figure. And the core of Rumpole was the core of John.

For all his amusement at the world, he was full-fixed on the liberties of those he was defending.

In A Voyage Round My Father he not only paid great tribute to his blind father, in so many of whose steps he followed, but created a classic.

I used to call him Good Sir John and he loved to tweak me by calling me M'Lord. As often as not it was the affectionate opening for a full and frank discussion about where the Labour party was going badly wrong.

I sometimes disagreed with him, I never fell out with him. There are an enormous number of people whose lives he made happier and better by his writing, by the stand he took on public causes, and by the irradiation of his remarkably complex, but completely charming, English character.

by Melvyn Bragg

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Step In The Wrong Direction

Key step to Chavez term law vote

Venezuela's national assembly has approved a constitutional amendment to remove limits on how many times President Hugo Chavez can serve.

The amendment, which applies to all elected officials, must be approved by a referendum within 30 days, a vote correspondents say is set to be close.

Mr Chavez urged a change in the law in his annual address on Tuesday.

He said it would be dangerous to remove a captain from his ship halfway through the voyage.

The measure is Mr Chavez's second attempt at seeking unlimited re-election. A similar referendum was defeated in late 2007.

The constitutional amendment will now be presented to the national election board, which will convene the referendum, thought likely to be in mid-February.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cuba: The Look From The Revolution

40th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution

By Jorge Martin
Friday, 15 January 1999

Forty years ago, on January 1st 1959 a general strike paralysed Cuba and forced dictator Batista to flee the country. In a few days the July 26 Movement guerrillas, led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara entered the capital Havana and were received as heroes by the masses. The Cuban revolution had succeeded. What was the programme of that movement? What was the social basis of that revolution? In order to understand these and other questions we must look back a few years.

In 1898, Spain lost Cuba, one of the few remnants of her former colonial power. But that did not mean independence for Cuba. The island was just transferred from one colonial master to another: the United States of America. For three years after 1898, Cuba was militarily occupied and ruled by the US and the Cuban Republic was only declared on 1902, after Washington passed the Platt amendment declaring the right of the US to militarily intervene in the island at any time. Cuban politics for the next 60 years were to be determined by the US who did actually send troops to the island on several occasions (1906, 1912, 1917, 1920 and 1933).

The Cuban economy was also largely dominated by the US. The island's main source of income was sugar cane which was sold at preferential prices to the powerful northern neighbour. Most of the country's sugar mills were in the hands of American companies and so were most of the other key sectors of the economy (oil, electricity, telephone etc). The crushing domination of the US relied on a system of land property which remained basically the same as under Spanish domination: a few landowners had most of the land, while the majority of peasants were landless labourers. Fewer than 0.1% of the farms represented 20% of the land while at the other end of the scale 39% of the farms represented only 3.3% of the land.

The only other group to benefit from this situation was the small and very weak Cuban bourgeoisie, confined to manufacturing the very few things not made by US subsidiaries.

Meanwhile the living conditions of the Cuban masses were appalling. In good years 25% of the workforce was unemployed and the percentage went up to 50% in bad years. Illiteracy was very high and the average per capita income was only US$312 (compared to US$2,279 in Delaware).

For years the Cuban workers played a key role in the struggle against imperialism and to advance their own interests. A high point was the huge wave of strikes and demonstrations, including armed uprisings and the establishment of revolutionary councils in the sugar mills, in the 1930s. This led to the overthrow of General Machado's US puppet government, which was soon replaced by an army coup led by Fulgencio Batista.

Stalinist theory

Unfortunately, the Cuban Communist Party, instead of relying on the revolutionary might of the Cuban workers adopted the Stalinist theory of the "two-stages". According to this, they were supposed to look for an alliance with the so-called "progressive national bourgeoisie" in order to complete the "anti-imperialist and democratic revolution" and only after that would the struggle for socialism be on the agenda. This theory was utterly divorced from Cuban conditions, and indeed from the real class relationships in any of the colonial countries. The Cuban landowners and the tiny bourgeoisie were completely linked to and dominated by the US. They had no intention whatsoever of carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois revolution (distribution of the land, fight for national independence) because that would have meant dealing a mortal blow to themselves.

The Cuban Communist Party in its search for a non-existent 'progressive national bourgeoisie' discovered Batista to be the representative of this class and decided to support him. In exchange, the CP was legalised during the Batista dictatorship and even got two cabinet ministers in 1942.

Batista was replaced by the corrupt civilian government of Grau San Mart�n which in its turn was overthrown by Batista in a second military coup in 1952. The succession of corrupt governments and military coups with the real power in the island remaining firmly in the hand of the US and their local crooks created widespread discontent amongst the population, including the petty-bourgeois layers. Thousands of small businessmen made bankrupt by the big monopolies, students who resented the domination of their country by a foreign power, and small landowners paralysed by the US-backed big landlords entered into opposition. In 1953, a group of students and intellectuals decided to do something to put an end to this state of affairs and with a handful of followers launched an assault on the Montcada barracks on July 26th. Amongst them were Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. They were defeated and jailed but as soon as they were released they went to Mexico where they set themselves the task of organising a guerrilla group, the July 26th Movement, which landed in Cuba in 1956.

The programme of this movement was that of the revolutionary petty-bourgeoisie: distribution of land plots of more than 1,100 acres with compensation for the owners, a profit-sharing scheme for the workers aimed at expanding the domestic market, and the end of the quota system under which the US controlled sugar cane production. The 1956 Programme Manifesto of the 26-J Movement defined itself as "guided by the ideals of democracy, nationalism and social justice ... of Jeffersonian democracy". The same document also stated the aim to reach a "state of solidarity and harmony between capital and workers in order to raise the country's productivity".

They launched a heroic 3 year long guerrilla struggle which won the overwhelming support of the Cuban people, with only the exception of the tiny handful of people directly linked to the landlords and US imperialism. The main base of the movement during the fighting itself were the landless peasants and small producers in the countryside, for whom the only way of solving their problems was the expropriation of the landlords. Batista's army, made up itself mainly of peasants rapidly began to disintegrate during the fighting.

On January 1959 a general strike was declared which forced Batista to flee the country. Fidel Castro's guerrillas entered Santiago de Cuba and in a few days Havana and proclaimed a new government. Just after seizing power Castro went to the US in a goodwill tour declaring in New York "I have clearly and definitely stated that we are not Communists... The gates are open for private investment that contributes to the development of Cuba".

The problem was that even this limited programme of progressive reforms clashed head on with the interests of the big landlords and the US multinationals. In other words, to carry through the programme of the democratic bourgeois revolution in a backward country in the epoch of imperialism meant to challenge capitalism and imperialism itself. This had already been proved by the practical experience of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks had argued that the national democratic revolution could only be led in a backward country like Russia by the working class (which represented no more than 10% of the population at that time).

Socialist revolution

The workers, having taken power at the head of the other oppressed classes, especially the peasantry, would then proceed to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution as the only way to ensure the survival of the revolution. But, as the national democratic revolution also challenged the interests of imperialism, in order to survive, the revolution had to spread internationally seeking the help of the mighty working class in the advanced capitalist countries.

Trotsky was the first one to give a full theoretical explanation of this theory which is known as the permanent revolution. The revolution in a backward country therefore, has to be 'permanent' in two regards: because it starts with the national democratic tasks and continues with the socialist ones, and because it starts in one country but has to spread internationally in order to succeed.

The events which followed Castro's seizure of power in Cuba are a remarkable confirmation of this theory, which is even more striking because of the fact that Castro was forced to act in the opposite way to what he intended.

As soon as the new government started to seize the land owned by the big landlords (some of them US companies) they tried to organise resistance against these measures and were backed by the US. The masses, aroused by the revolutionary takeover were also putting enormous pressure on the government with a wave of land seizures and factory occupations and strikes.

The conflict came to a head in 1960 when the three oil companies in the island (all of them US-owned) refused to refine a delivery of Russian oil to Cuba. The Cuban government then "intervened" placing them under government supervision. The US retaliated by cutting the quota for Cuban sugar, but Russia offered to buy it. Then the Cuban government decided to nationalise the electricity company, the telephone company, the oil refinery and the sugar mills. Afterwards all Cuban subsidiaries of US companies were also nationalised and finally the biggest Cuban companies were taken into public ownership. The US government retaliated by putting in place a trade embargo (which is still in place) and preparing military intervention to overthrow the regime. In 1961 all diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken.

As we have seen Castro and his comrades had no intention whatsoever of eliminating capitalism and landlordism in the island. They were pushed to do so by a combination of the mistakes and blunders of the US and the pressure of the Cuban masses. But the key factor was that no fundamental change could ever be implemented in Cuba under capitalism. In the epoch of imperialism there is no room for a small colonial country to achieve real independence and advance unless it breaks fundamentally with capitalism. And this, Castro and his comrades of the 26-J Movement found out by their own experience.


The Cuban Communist Party played almost no role in the overthrow of Batista because its political activity was firmly rooted in the anti-Bolshevik theory of the two stages. They even denounced Castro as a "gangster"!

Undoubtedly, the support for the new regime was overwhelming. Two hundred thousand workers and soldiers were organised in a popular militia and Committees for the Defence of the Revolution organised in every neighbourhood and every village. Thus when the CIA sponsored an invasion of the island in April 1961, the Cuban emigre invasion force was rapidly crushed. For the first time in their lives, workers and peasants had something to defend, something to fight and even die for.

The revolution enjoyed mass support since its advantages were there for everyone to see: an enormous advance of the living standards, the eradication of illiteracy, one of the best health systems in the world, etc. But without workers control and management of the state and the economy there can be no socialism and the development of bureaucracy and mismanagement is inevitable. This is on of the most important lessons to be drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The way the new regime had come to power was to shape the organisation of the new state. The working class is the only class that, because of its working conditions and the role it plays in production, is able to adopt a collectivist viewpoint. During the process of the Russian revolution hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers went through the school of the soviets, revolutionary committees where all decisions were taken democratically, and gained confidence in their own ability to run their own lives.

But the Cuban revolution was led by a handful of intellectuals and in the process of the fighting itself no more than a few hundred participated. The masses played mainly a secondary role. And this situation was to remain afterwards. There was a workers and peasants' militia and revolutionary committees, but their role was not to rule but only to approve decisions taken elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands gathered to listen to the speeches of the leaders, but they were not allowed to take decisions.

When the new regime broke with capitalism the model it based itself on was not that of Russian soviet democracy of 1917, but that of Russia 1961 when all vestiges of workers control had been eradicated long ago. An example of this can be seen in the fact that the Communist Party was created in 1965, its first congress did not take place until 1975, ten years later!


The lack of democracy and the scarcity of basic products (largely due to the criminal embargo decreed by US imperialism) has meant an increase in scepticism amongst the younger generation. The older generation remains largely loyal to the regime because they know how life was under the domination of the landlords and imperialism and if they look around to the neighbouring states they see a cruel reminder of what life would be like if capitalism were restored.

Socialists all over the world have the duty to defend the Cuban revolution against the attempts of US imperialism to destroy it, but also against the attempts of European capitalism to restore the rule of capital bit by bit. At the same time we have to explain that genuine socialism cannot be established unless there is real workers democracy and above all that socialism cannot be built in a single island. The best contribution we can make to defend the gains of the Cuban revolution is to fight for socialism in our own countries.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Helen Suzman (RIP)

APPEARANCES deceived where Helen Suzman was concerned. The petite and elegant figure, clad in two-pieces or nicely pressed slacks, her hair Thatcher-perfect, was clearly a denizen of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, where discreet black domestics clipped the acacias and golf was played at weekends. Houghton, rich and Jewish, was indeed her constituency, and privilege was her life. But there the comfortable impression ended. Among the solid and overwhelmingly male Afrikaners in Parliament, “baying like hounds at a meet”, she was noisy, rude, contemptuous, “thoroughly nasty when I get going”. “A vicious little cat”, said P.W. Botha, South Africa’s prime minister, who often felt her claws in him. “The honourable member does not like me,” he observed once in Parliament. “Like you? I can’t stand you,” came the spitting reply. Verwoerd, an earlier prime minister, a man she admitted she was “scared stiff” of, fared no better. “I have written you off,” he told her. “The whole world has written you off,” she retorted.

Then there were her questions: as many as 200 of them a year, asked in Parliament and recorded in Hansard, on any subject that might embarrass South Africa’s white rulers. How many people were being held without trial? How many blacks were arrested each day for violating the Pass Laws? Why were they being forcibly removed to areas with nothing but rows of tin latrines, where only wattles grew in the sand? Why did the police turn up to remove them at four in the morning? Why did they use rubber bullets to disperse protesting crowds? Was it true that prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, beaten with straps, made to sleep on the floor? On, on, on. One National Party MP said she reminded him of “a cricket in a tree when it is very dry in the bushvelt. His chirping makes you deaf but the tune remains the same.” Botha said her “chattering” was like water dripping on a tin roof. Mrs Suzman was delighted to annoy them in the cause of justice.

In a parliamentary career of 36 years, she spent only six in a party of any size. She quit the paternal United Party in 1959, frustrated that it was so wobbly against apartheid, to join a Progressive Party of 12 members that was wiped out in an election two years later. She was the sole survivor, for 13 years a one-woman opposition to the relentless consolidation of white rule. The small but determined voice of the “neo-communist” and “sickly humanist” would call out “No”—to the Sabotage Act, the Terrorism Act, the Ninety-Day Detention Law—and she would be left sitting alone in a sea of empty green benches.

Her strength was that she knew the facts, and knew her rights. South Africa’s devotion to the Westminster parliamentary system, a figleaf of democracy over barbarism, meant that the Speaker was bound to let this “lone Prog” speak, and ministers had to answer her questions. She was allowed to bring one Private Member’s Motion a year, so she would try single-handedly to repeal the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, or propose a minimum wage for blacks. As an MP, she could also visit prisons and “black spots” barred to the public; which was how she found herself talking to Nelson Mandela in his cell on Robben Island in 1967, or tramping through squatters’ camps of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. She was a precious mouthpiece to the world, as she was also the first resort for communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, banned people, Coloureds resentful of their racial classification, and all the “sad harvest of the seeds of apartheid” that drifted through her office.

Did it make any difference? By 1974, after 20 years in Parliament, Mrs Suzman felt she had achieved little except identity-numbers for policemen, “because it helps to know who is beating you round the head”. She had stopped no law, and white rule was to run on for 20 more years. Her critics on the left always said far more force was needed to remove it. But she did not believe in force. Outsiders thought economic sanctions were the answer: but she did not believe in those, either. Her principles, to which she was always truthful, were those of a good old-fashioned liberal. Free markets, capitalism, the paramountcy of democracy and civil institutions, equal opportunity. She had always argued with her father, Sam Gavronsky, who had emigrated from Lithuania and made a success of the leather-and-soap trade, that blacks were oppressed rather than lazy, and couldn’t build a new life as readily as he had done. But when the African National Congress, once in power, began to impose quotas for blacks in jobs, she naturally and ferociously opposed it.

In many ways black rule proved “a huge disappointment” to her: corrupt, spendthrift, anti-white, and doing little to help the millions of poor blacks whose lot she had tried to improve. Thabo Mbeki’s wilful ignorance over AIDS appalled her. She spoke out about all of it, though the ANC seldom deigned to notice or reply. She was the past. In old age she sometimes seemed just another rich white suburbanite, comfortably behind her security fence, sighing over her whisky and soda about “that president of ours”. But the claws on her “pretty little pink hands” had drawn blood, and they were never retracted.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Massacre, As per Today

As per Sun 11 Jan 09, and according to international press, Israel has killed 854 and wounded more than 3,500 Palestinians. Palestinians have killed, in the other hand, 13 Israelis (10 of them, military personnel). You can reach your own conclusions.

Cuba: The Look From Miami

Align Centre

Like me, all the Cuban children who were born in Miami were taught from the start that we were only here by accident.

We were exiles, not emigrants, and we were only going to be here for a brief period.

We were told that, with the help of the United States, Fidel Castro would be taken out of power and things would soon return to normal, whatever that meant in the island's turbulent political reality.

As budding Cuban exiles, it would therefore be our duty to make learning Spanish and adhering to the culture and customs of our parents, a priority. There would be no melting pot for us.

Instead, we lived a very insular life, a Cuban life in the heart of the US. Americans - or los Americanos as we called them in Spanish - were those people we occasionally came into contact with on the street: the teacher in school, the man at the bank or the colourful characters on television.

I remember quite clearly, for example, how at the Cuban-run kindergarten I attended, we would sing the Cuban national anthem every single day and how we spoke much more of Jose Marti - the Cuban national hero - than we ever spoke of the father of the US, George Washington. Even Santa Claus spoke in Spanish when he came to our annual Christmas party.

Taught to question

My life was dominated by Cuba and my father's nemesis: Fidel Castro.

He and his friends would spend days on end organising protests and other actions calling for the fall of communism in Cuba.

I can remember watching my father putting the final touches to the homemade layout of the political newspaper he edited, El Nacionalista. I guess you could say he was the old-school version of a modern-day activist blogger.

I have come to the conclusion, decades later, that it was the heated and intense conversations - and the disagreements my father would have with relatives who advocated a different approach towards Cuba - that best prepared me for my future professional career in journalism.

From a very early age I would hear both sides of an argument and then ask questions... and lots of them.

For every Cuban like my father, who was preparing and working for the big day when Cuba would be rid of the "scourge of communism", there were five or six like my mother who worked tirelessly to help put a roof over the family's head and food on our table.

The lofty ideals could not be pursued without someone to do the hard work and earn the much-needed money to help the family get ahead.

Fighting spirit

I spoke to my mother, Amalia, about this intense work ethic that was so integral to her character and to so many of the early generation of exiles. She told me it had been extremely difficult to get used to at first. After all, she had lived a comfortable life in Cuba.

Like most young private school girls, she had learned to sew and knit as a hobby. Little had she imagined back then that her childhood hobby would be the lifeblood of our family during our first decade in the US.

She told me how she and my father, along with my older brother and sister, had arrived in Miami in 1960 with nothing more than $300-$400 (£208-£277) and a few suitcases full of clothes and other essentials.

Months later it became clear that the toppling of Fidel Castro would not happen overnight.

With the family's money running out, my mother went out to work in a clothing factory and with that began her life as a working woman.

Today, at the age of 81, she continues to work full-time and has what appears to be an endless reserve of energy.

The blow she suffered with having to flee her homeland and face a much harder new reality as a virtual nobody in a foreign land seems to have brought out in her that fighting spirit that persists to this day.

Proud community

A great deal - much of it negative - has been said about the intensity of Cuban exile politics and the hard anti-Castro line the Cubans in Miami have pursued in their 50 years in the US.

Truth be told, some in the community have carried out questionable actions - including acts of violence - which have helped perpetuate that view of Cubans as intransigent hardliners.

But what I have learned, as someone with a special bird's-eye view into this often complex city, is that beyond the intense politics and the international headlines they have garnered, lies the story of a proud immigrant community.

Over the last 50 years, it has not only made its own huge strides and new life for itself in the US.

In the process, it has helped make Miami the cosmopolitan, international city that it has become.

by Emilio San Pedro (BBC)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

80 Years Of Tintin

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Mass Murder

Can you imagine Palestinians killing 500 Israelis because they suffered 16 loses in 10 years due Israelli attacks? Shocking, isn't it?